Pop quiz, hotshot: What’s the key to an enduring Wall Street career?
Business acumen? Puh-leeze. No, wait, maybe it’s knowing when to keep your integrity in the face of temptation, say, for instance, insider trading? Nuh-uh.
Maybe we should let Matthew McConaughey answer for us. “Cocaine and hookers, my friend,” says Mark Hanna, the boozy exec with the effortless swag and cringe-inducing toupee the Magic Mike actor briefly, vividly brings to life onscreen. His eager audience of one at this power lunch? Up-and-coming penny stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who takes that advice to heart, even after Black Monday in 1987 puts him back on square one.
Actually, Belfort, played with no-holds-barred exuberance by Leonardo DiCaprio, wasn’t the only one taking notes here. Martin Scorsese, restlessly sitting in the director’s chair, directs The Wolf of Wall Street, one of two new Christmas releases I’m reviewing this week, as if in the throes of a coke-induced rage. He crams in as much content as he can over the course of three dense, lean, riveting hours, and in the process has made his most exhilarating movie in decades.
It’s also his funniest. No misprint here; Marty’s made a three-hour comedy about corporate malfeasance, rampant decadence and all-American greed. Working from a tight, pay-attention-or-you’ll-get-lost screenplay by Sopranos alum Terence Winter – which he adapted from Belfort’s book – the Taxi Driver auteur takes in all the sights like a kid who’s snuck into an adult bookstore. It’s fueled by some of that GoodFellas paranoia, but the manic energy on display here recalls his work in the 80s. Think The King of Comedy and, especially, After Hours, and you’ll have an idea just how revitalized his work comes across here.
That urgency is key to The Wolf of Wall Street, which traces Belfort’s meteoric rise as the Bronx-born Long Island resident opens his own brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, at an abandoned storefront alongside nebbishy partner in crime Donnie Azoff (a hilarious Jonah Hill). Over the next decade, he perfects his brand of white-collar deceit, luring investors with stocks that turn out to be a sham, a con act that made him very rich, very quick. Out goes Teresa (Cristin Milioti), long-suffering wife #1, and in comes the curvaceous Naomi (Margot Robbie), aka long-suffering wife #2. The couple’s extravagant lifestyle spills off the screen with eye-popping verve, set to the jittery rhythms of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s scissors. She skillfully cuts around sexually explicit content that would have earned the movie an NC-17 rating – and reportedly almost did – if she’d lingered on some of these eyebrow-raising shots too long. This, it must be said, is Scorsese’s raciest film to date. In a peek-a-boo, blink-and-you-missed-it moment, Naomi comes back from a trip earlier than expected to catch a staffer and some of his male buddies, um, frolicking in the expensive pad.
Scorsese knows when to keep going, and he also knows when to grind the movie to a halt, like in a showstopping sequence that shows Belfort, high on expired Quaaludes, attempt to manage the daunting task of climbing down the stairway at the entrance of a country club so he can get back in his car. Schoonmaker and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto craft the sequence to full comic effect, but it’s DiCaprio who brings his “A” game with crack comic timing and inspired slapstick. He also elicits solid work from Kyle Chandler, who plays the FBI agent with the squeaky-clean morals – and the government salary – hellbent on taking Belfort down.
As The Wolf of Wall Street goes into its third hour, though, the same sense of viewer fatigue that marred Casino for me begins to set in. The film dwells too long on the details of Belfort’s crumbling second marriage, and the excess that was so intoxicating and irresistible at first becomes grating. It’s too much of a muchness, but until the movie arrives at that point, it’s a wild ride that demands to be seen, if you have the stomach for it. Haters will carp about how Scorsese’s slick mise en scene glamorizes this charismatic scumbag’s misdeeds, but there’s no doubt from where I was sitting what The Wolf of Wall Street thinks of this Master of the Universe. Belfort takes his place as another one of the filmmaker’s raging bulls.
If you think Belfort and his merry band of stock swindlers aren’t precisely the most likable numbers men you’ve encountered on a movie screen they’ve got nothing on the Westons, the Oklahoma clan at the center of August: Osage County, the long-awaited film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-wining play by Tracy Letts. Check out the pedigree in front of the camera. Meryl Streep stars as Violet the cancer-afflicted matriarch who lords over her dysfunctional brood after hubby Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes AWOL – daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), their sullen daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), Mattie’s husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son Charles, Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch); and Barbara’s younger sisters, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis).
Is the A-list cast Harvey Weinstein assembled getting you all excited? Ready to watch the fireworks, the exquisite verbal sparring pitting the formidable Violet against her resentful “loved” ones? I was too. I liked the two previous movies – Bug and Killer Joe – made out of Letts’ stage plays. And director John Wells (The Company Men) seemed, at least on paper, a respectable choice to tackle Letts’ mix of pathos and gallows humor. So imagine my surprise at the earnest train wreck that unfolded before me. Streep snarls and screams and screeches as if her life depended on nabbing an Oscar. Roberts takes a more understated tack, but that just makes her an uninteresting foil for Streep’s scenery chewing. And McGregor’s saddled with unflattering facial hair that makes his dull character even less appealing. Lewis is playing a one-note cartoon; her character moved away to Miami, and I suppose Wells and Letts thought the flat landscape deprived her of any dimensions. The only players here who seem to know what they’re doing are Cooper and Martindale, but they’re offscreen for far too long.
Where’s the perverse spark of the other films made from Letts’ work? It is MIA, and since we can’t brings Robert Altman back from the dead – he would have known how to whip these actors into shape – maybe William Friedkin (The Exorcist; yes, that William Friedkin), who directed Bug and Killer Joe, should have been the one calling the shots here. As it stands, Wells thinks he’s making a Southern fried hybrid of Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But the stern tone he sustains most of the running time leeches the film of the pitch-black humor that, for me, remains Letts most valuable asset. They should have taken a cue from Scorsese and his team, and gone for the funny-bone jugular.